Wednesday, May 29, 2013

tropic of cancer

According to Miller's brief autobiography, he began writing Tropic of Cancer while living in Louveciennes,  a western suburbs of Paris, where he met Anais Nin. He had left his second wife, June Edith Smith, at home during this time and lived on the streets of Paris, and slept, as he says, where he could. This was in 1931-2. During this time he worked at the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune as a proof reader, and taught English for a while in Lycee Carnot. Nin was his lover during this period and kept him housed, fed, and helped finance the first printing of this book. Nin also wrote a short preface, which she ends by saying that Miller digs beneath the roots, for subterranean springs.

By 1933, Miller had visited  Luxembourg with his Clichy roommate, Alfred Perles, and begun work on Black Spring, and also a book on Lawrence which he never finished. His wife came back to Europe briefly, but left again after asking for a divorce. In 1934, Tropic of Cancer was published after a number of re-writes, a a decisive moment, in Miller's words. That was nearly 80 years ago. Tropic of Cancer could have been written yesterday. But if it was, no one would care; it could have only have been written then.

Miller writes with seeming abandon, using language that is both coarse and foul, and beautifully poetic. His prose is in many ways prose poetry. He talks about the underbelly of society and what it is to be a thinking, eating, sexual animal which lives in this society we've made for ourselves. He looks up from his depression-era squalor to the fat cats with 50 cent corona cigars, dripping juice down their faces, but not with hatred as you might expect, but with a journalist's impartiality. If he feels anything about the state of man, as horrible and useless as it all is, you could say its glee. He seems to laugh as he looks on, constantly amused by what he sees, as if he looked on the antics of young children, or dogs frolicking.

Miller lauds the works of those he sees as shinning examples in his prose, he talks of Walt Whitman as a poet who understood what is is to be a man, but worried that Whitman's language was now (in 1931) almost incomprehensible to modern readers. He also went on about Matisse, saying that he was at the very hub of the wheel that was falling apart around us.

One of my favorite lines:

"The wallpaper with which the men of science have covered the world of reality is falling to tatters."

There has been so much written about Henry Miller, that you certainly don't need me to go on about it too. What I will say is: if you've read some beat or surrealism and it worked for you, you'll enjoy this. If you're interested in the birth of modern American writing, it seems to me that this is one of the stops. Is it a little odd? Sure. Is the language foul and the treatment of women appalling? You bet. Is it amazing to read such honest writing, from an era before my parents were born? Absolutely.

Read this book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

splendid suns

Khaled Hosseini made a name for himself with The Kite Runner, in 2003. His followup of life in Afghanistan is A Thousand Splendid Suns, published in 2007. Hosseini was lauded for his debut novel, I think, because of his intimate view of life. Not only is he telling stories of a country that we in the West don't understand, but he tells them in a way that help us to understand what it is to be there, to live there. Hosseini isn't trying to explain what it Afghanistan is, and how it may be different from the places his readers live in or know, but rather, how Afghanistan as a place shapes the people and their history, right down to how they live their lives in their own homes, and even in the hearts. By doing this, Hosseini encourages us to examine how our own places form and shape our lives and our dreams.

What also impressed me about A Thousand Splendid Suns is even though Khaled Hosseini reports in excruciating detail, how difficult women's lives are and have been in Afghanistan, he writes this story from a woman's point of view; a few women, in fact. Splendid Suns follows the lives of these women through the upheaval of the last few decades: from the Soviet occupation, to their expulsion (with American aid to warlords), to civil war between the American-armed warlords and the dissolution of civilized life in large portions of the country, to the eventual wholesale decay of society, which allowed the rise of the Taliban to fill the void, and their eventual harboring of Al Qaeda. Finally, the introduction of American and Allied troops, post September 11, to remove the Taliban and dismantle Al Qaeda (read: kill).

What struck me most is Hosseini's portrayal of the utter hopelessness of the captivity, servitude, and general loathing suffered by women at the hands of men in Afghanistan during the civil strife, and especially the time of Taliban rule, who didn't just turn a blind eye to this but encouraged and indeed mandated it. But it wasn't just that; it was that even amidst this horrific culture of inequality and disdain for women, women continued to have hope. Against an overwhelming crush of oppression and abuse that lasted decades, and in some some places, I am sure, still goes on, women bear up, and refuse to be conquered in spirit. No matter how much their oppressors shoveled at them, they refused to be overcome. And in some small ways, even managed to sometimes shovel back.

Khaled Hosseini has created a modern day heroine story, that left me with my heart in my throat in many instances. It is an enraged clamor in the quiet night of complacency. A story of outrage, laced with beauty, that can--and perhaps has, in spirit--ignite the passion of a people. It is also a reminder to us, who were force fed the stories of American-Allied involvement, what our interventions can mean to the people who suffer both during, and the sometimes worse, vacuous aftermath of our policy of self-interest.

Hosseini has no trouble reminding us of what we may have forgotten: we custom-built these problems ourselves. We fabricated the very environments that later spawned our worst fears and nightmares, and in many cases traded our own feelings of safety and security for that of others. Its a reminder that when we make these decisions to intervene, they have long-lasting implications, that if not seen through to their end, when swallowed in the clamor of 'getting-out-while-we-still-can', they will come back to haunt us. And begs the question: what will come of our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in 20 or 30 years, and will we remember then our hand in its genesis.

Read this book.

Monday, May 13, 2013

clutch of constables

I found this copy of Clutch of Constables,  by Ngaio Marsh at my library's book sale. I'm pretty sure This is a first edition, Little, Brown & Company; printed in the United States.

Dame Ngaio Marsh* is a native New Zealander, who spent some time in England during her younger years, if I'm getting this right. She's written a bunch of books, and was also into production of plays, and other things. In 1966, she was awarded the honorific Dame, which is short for Dame Commanderof the British Empire, equivilanet to knighthood (and the honorific: Sir) for gentlemen. Good on you Dame Marsh.

I had a lot of fun reading this one. It was loaded with Englishisms--from 1969 no less--so some of it took some puzzling, but I was able to stay with it without any trouble. The police slang may have been the hardest. But some stuff just takes knowledge of the language I simply don't have. Take a look at this for example: One of the characters is attempting help another recover a lost item. The owner of the item is worriedly complaining that the rescue attempt may further damage her lost goods. An onlooker, who knows them both has this to add:

"Stone the Crows!" Mr Lazenby astonishingly ejaculated.

Says it all, right?

This story has an interesting structure: each of the chapters is broken down into two or three acts, which are prefaced by the narrator discussing the mystery, after the fact, while carefully avoiding giving away any of the details before their time.The acts themselves are told from the point of view of an onlooker, who happens to be married to the narrator. She eventually calls in her husband, a police detective, when foul play is discovered. When he arrives, and sends his wife off to safety, the POV switches to him, altho he does pop back in at the end to finish up the narration.

I enjoyed this quite a bit, and after searching for this title on line, it may even have a little collector value. Sweet!

* This helpful tidbit, comes from the Ngaio Marsh Trust's site: Ngaio (rhymes with "bio") is a Maori name meaning competent. It also is the common name for the native shrub myopororum laetum

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

travel marker series ii

Dinosaur Monument is the second in the Travel Marker Series. If you clicky-click on the image, you'll see a fold down the middle; This is from a trip across the US in an envelope, from a friend* who was kind enough to think of me on a cross-country bicycle trip.

From the National Park Service web site:

Dinosaur National Monument is located in both Colorado and Utah. Each state provides a chance to visit very distinctive areas of the monument. The east side of the monument located in Colorado provides access to deep canyons along the Green and Yampa rivers. Dramatic views are available along the Harpers Corner Road. The west side of the monument located in Utah features the world-famous dinosaur quarry where visitors can see over 1,500 fossils still embedded in the cliff face.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Check this out, from the reverse of the bookmark.

Dinosaur National Monument is the legacy of rivers, past and present. Here, preserved in the sands of an ancient river, is a time capsule from the world of dinosaurs. The dinosaur quarry discovered here by Earl Douglas in 1909 has yielded the bones of 10 species of "terrible lizards", including Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus -- the most fearsome meat-eating dinosaur for its time.

The Quarry Visitor Center is where you can stop in, park, and plan out your trip. Shuttle buses take folks from here to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. You say you'd like or bike in? Here you go:

Coordinates for the Quarry Visitor Center (Utah side of monument)
Latitude:N 40° 26' 17.0277"
Longitude:W 109° 18' 25.6701"

The Quarry Exhibit Hall is where you can find dino bones, and other paleontological goodies. Out in the park, there are canyons, rivers, ancient petroglyphs and pictographs,† boating, hiking, and folded layers of the earth's strata!

Dudes, lets go!

* Thanks to Alyson!
† Petroglyphs are images pecked into rock while pictographs are painted images. Thank you, National Park Service. Incidentally, these are old Native American artworks.

Monday, May 6, 2013


I've only borrowed a few books from my office lending library over the years yeah, that's right. we have a small lending library in my office As part of that endeavor, I put together some bookmarks so I could keep track of the books that I loaned and borrowed from said library. I talked about these homemade markers just a few months ago, but the reason I bring it up here is that I found one of my bookmarks in the copy of The Poisonwood Bible I just read, which informed me that I borrowed this book from my office lending library on April 22, 2008. Yep, just over 5 years ago.

I'm not sure why I let this book sit on my shelf for 5+ years before reading it, especially now that I've read it, but I can guess. One, I'm not a big fan of reading the hot books of the day. I get the feeling that hot books are driven more by hype than substance. Which leads me my second guess: this book was chosen for the Oprah book club. See the little tag up there on the cover? I've never seen the Oprah book club on TV--which is where I assume it is, or was if its canceled like the rest of Oprah on television--but I can imagine that its based on the idea that you can get a million people to feel like they are in a private, exclusive club, with Oprah as the president, talking about reading books. Except that nobody talks about books except Oprah, and the people she brings on her book club show. I've  read or heard author's talking about how this crummy idea has impacted book sales for a few chosen individuals, and completely skewed sales for all kinds of other (read: left out) writers for years. Just sounds like a bad idea, poorly executed.*

The Poisonwood Bible is, however, a very good book despite my caterwauling. Barbara Kingsolver has taken an epic journey by five amazing women and girls, through time and vast culture differences, and has broken it down to its parts as told by each of them, some of them from the time they were very young. A multiple point-of-view narrative can be tricky to read, and I'm sure tricky to write, but this one flows out beautifully, with each of these women and girls telling their story in their own voice. And as they grow together and move through time, we can see their perspectives changing, and even how they influence one another over time.

The Poisonwood Bible is a story of family, growth, life, death, and re-birth. Its a story of Africa, America, and a story of their intertwined and often uncomfortable relationships; relationships we can see reflected in these characters, their cultures, and environments.

The reality of Africa is more nuanced, beautiful, sad, complex, and terrifying than I imagined, or can be told in a novel, but Kingsolver did a good job of lifting the veil a little on this for me. The other take away message: this could very easily been filed under chick-lit, and I don't know if I missed that during the hype stage of this book, or I've just forgotten, but what I will say is that it certainly didn't read that way. I was enthralled with the journey these women and girls had gone on, and how they dealt with the things they encountered, not least of which was their treatment by the men in their lives and in society.

Nicely Done.

Read this book.

* This is apparently called the "Oprah Effect." That's a damn shame.